Easy on the eyes and wallet, but can Asus’s premier smartwatch cut it?
If you’re after a stylish smartwatch that does your basic range of Android Wear things, the ZenWatch is worth a look. Beyond that, there’s little difference from the other similarly priced Android Wear watches.
- Beautifully crafted
- Well built
- Reasonably priced
- Interchangeable straps
- Pixellated screen
- Lackluster fitness features
- Too much bezel
Update: Along with most of the others, Asus’ original ZenWatch has been updated to Android Wear 6.0, bringing along new gesture controls and other features. And it’s made our list of best Android Wear watches, to boot.
But shouldn’t you be more interested in the newer Asus ZenWatch 2? Among some huge improvements, including different sizes, faster charging time and new crown, it’s not a whole lot more expensive than the original.
Even so, the original ZenWatch remains a smart buy if you’re looking to get into the world of Android Wear for as little money as possible. However, once Android Wear 2.0 comes along, don’t expect this watch to receive support.
More and more smartwatches are cropping up every month, making it harder for new ones to stand out from the increasingly crowded space.
The Asus ZenWatch was a surprise when it was first announced, considering Asus wasn’t a company expected to enter the wearables world.
But it was promising from start. The first teased images of the ZenWatch were enough to intrigue the wariest wearable-fatigued fan (me), because of its surprisingly attractive design.
Once released, the price of $199 (£199, about AU$252) added to the appeal, though it hasn’t caused a huge stir in the wearables world, primarily because it lacks a wow-factor that would make it memorable. It’s also only compatible with smartphones running Android 4.3 and up, which means iPhone users are out of luck.
A sharp-edged, rectangular screen within a round-edged rectangular face is not going to win any plaudits from the high-end design community, but it’s functional.
The problem is more that, at 1.63 inches and 320 x 320 (278 ppi), the Corning Gorilla Glass 3 OLED screen can appear rather pixelated, if you look at it for more than a glance. It’s still a slightly higher density than the LG G Watch R and the Sony Smartwatch 3, and even the Moto 360.
The tiny panel is reasonably bright, but again, I’ve seen better in this department too. That said, it’s perfectly serviceable, and it would be a stretch to say the screen is out-and-out bad. There’s sadly no ambient light sensor so you’re stuck with manually turning up or down the brightness in the settings.
Design is everything when it comes to smartwatches, and Asus did not disappoint. The ZenWatch is undeniably an attractive smartwatch. With the Moto 360 catching eyes for its classic circular style, and the Samsung Gear S for being curvy and rectangular, Asus chose a slightly different path. Rather than choosing round or square, Asus opted for both by rounding out the square’s edges.
It’s closer in looks to the Apple Watch and Pebble Time than the current Android Wear breeds. That is to say, the ticker is kind of blandly handsome, in a premium way, with a bezel in brushed steel – an Asus hallmark – and an attractive, comfy leather strap.
The bezel, in all honesty, is about the only big issue about the design of the ZenWatch, and utterly detracts from how lovely it looks. Instead of so much distracting bezel, it would have been nice if the screen were larger.
With the exception of the clasp, which feels a little wobbly, the ZenWatch is a solid, smart timepiece. The 22mm strap reminds me of the Gear S in terms of functionality, but feels much easier to put on because of the leather material. The Zenwatch’s strap is also on par with the Moto 360’s Horween leather, but seems more likely to scratch and crack over time from usage.
Though, you can switch out the leather for a metal band or any other type of 22mm strap, as Asus has made it extremely customizable. A swap is also extremely simple, thanks to the quick release pins attached to the lugs.
There’s a power button on the back of the ZenWatch, which is an interesting but perhaps useless addition, since you can just swipe the screen for options. Fortunately, it’s set in a way in which you can’t accidentally press down on it. However, that means you have to jam your finger underneath to reach the switch, hence its triviality.
You’ll also spot the gold charging connectors on the back of the watch, but there’s no heart rate monitor. Rather it’s been placed on the front, where you can touch any part of the metal frame to get a reading. It’s an odd choice opposed to the usual green lights on the back of other smarwatches, but is easy enough to use. Both processes take just as long anyway, and the accuracy still remains a little questionable, but more on that later.
For those with smaller wrists, the Asus smartwatch is probably the best you’re going to get for now, in terms of comfort. It still snags on certain coat sleeves, but for the most part, remains unobtrusive and fairly weightless throughout the day.
The metallic back – stainless steel again – is smooth and comfortable against the skin. And because the watch is only 9.5mm thick, it doesn’t feel too bulky on your wrist, like some smartwatches – that’s a failing of the Moto 360, for me – and only weighs 75 grams.
A Qualcomm processor, the APQ8026, otherwise known as the Snapdragon 400, lies at the heart of Asus ZenWatch. It’s a surprisingly powerful dual-core chip, clocked at up to 1.7GHz, although I suspect it is significantly downclocked.
The rest of the spec sheet is not too shabby as well, with 512MB of RAM and 4GB on-board storage, we’re looking at the same base components we’d see in an entry-level tablet. But of course, squeezed into a product a fraction of its volume.
As for that gorgeous, curved rectangular AMOLED, its 320 x 320-pixel panel is not quite as sharp as the Samsung Gear S’s360 x 480 resolution (albeit on a much bigger display).
The rest of the spec sheet includes Bluetooth, a 369mAh battery, 9-axis sensors, plus the heart rate monitor and IP55 water resistant capabilities.
Interface and performance
First things first: the Asus ZenWatch runs Android Wear, and that comes with its own fair share of trials and tribulations. We’ve gone over the pros and cons of Android Wear ad nauseum in other smartwatch reviews, but the basic idea is, if you’ve used one Android Wear smartwatch, you’ve used them all.
You don’t get an especially unique interface experience from the Moto 360 or LG G Watch R – though it is different from the Gear S’s Tizen OS.
Your basic information cards pop up from vertically from the bottom of the screen to flick through the available cards, a swipe from left to right will remove a card from the list while moving your finger in the opposite direction will take you to more options. Tapping the home watch face screen will take you to the apps where you can choose to look at settings, heart rate, steps, agenda, alarms and more. Your most recent app will be at the top of a scrolling list.
Still, the voice-recognition works surprisingly well, especially in louder environments and music controls are useful too if you don’t want to take your phone out of your pocket.
Notifications are handy, if somewhat limited. You can answer with templates (yes, no, I’m busy and that sort of thing). But realistically, if you want to reply, you’re getting your phone out.
There is an accompanying Asus ZenWatch Manager app, which lets you set your watch as an unlock key for your phone, so whenever you’re nearby (and wearing your watch, obviously), you can dispense with your unlock code and get straight into your phone, without any fumbling. It can also make your ZenWatch vibrate in case you’ve left it on the dining room table opposed to its usual nightstand spot.
And similar to other smartwatches out there, you can cover to mute incoming calls and alarms by placing your hand over the watch face.
The variety of 18 watch faces is nice; you can even customize watch face colors plus the advent of Lollipop has added even more designs.
Other apps found on the watch range from a music app, which just provides the controls to your connected phone, compass and flashlight. The latter displays a customizable solid color (which can “twinkle” to create a weird strobe light effect if you tap on it).
You wouldn’t expect a watch with a stainless steel body and leather strap to be much use for fitness – it certainly doesn’t look like your regular sports watch – but the ZenWatch has a stab at this lucrative market.
As you’d expect from the name, the ZenWatch is more concerned with your general well-being, rather than how far you’ve run today, so there’s no GPS tracking or heart-rate tracking, though a built-in “Biosensor” on the front will give you one-off heart-rate readings.
Alas, both this and the step counting seemed more than averagely inaccurate. I saw very different step estimates for the exact same 10-minute walk done several times, and some heart-rate readings so outrageously high, they would normally suggest I needed to go to hospital.
Please note that Google Now did not direct me automatically to the nearest hospital.
The Sony Smartwatch 3 is a much better fitness option, or you could go for one of the growing army of running watches, such as the Garmin Forerunner range and Polar M400, or cheaper fitness bands such as the Jawbone UP or Fitbit Charge.
There are a couple of nice features here though. You can ask your ZenWatch to buzz you every couple of hours or so to get up and walk around, or just to remind you if you’ve been inactive for a bit. And despite the inaccuracy of some of the fitness readings, the display that shows you all of your information is very pretty, with leafy autumnal graphics showing you just how slovenly you are.
The ZenWatch sports a 369mAh battery, which is bigger than the 320mAh power pack stuffed into the Moto 360, but less than the LG G Watch R’s 410mAh battery. It sits squarely within the battery life range of other smartwatches, though that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Basically, you will need to charge your ZenWatch every night. It can last more than a day, but it is categorically not going to make it through two days, even if you’re incredibly sparing in your usage.
I connected my Samsung Galaxy Note 4 up, meaning I was receiving alerts from three email accounts, agenda pop ups and occasional phone call notifications over the the course of a day. It used up the battery pretty quickly; specifically, in the course of a week, I typically was able to go about 14 hours before needing to juice up the watch again.
Like all the other smartwatches out there, the ZenWatch comes with its own proprietary charger. It’s no Qi charging dock like the Moto 360, rather you’ll get a charging cradle that pops onto the back of the smartwatch – which comes on and off easily enough – plus a micro USB cord to plug into.
A minor concern would be losing the cradle, considering it’s pretty light and small. Though, unlike the Samsung Gear S’s cradle, it can’t charge the ZenWatch on the go, so you’ll probably just leave it attached to the cord.
What we have here is a very solid Android Wear smartwatch, comparable to the “big three” from Motorola, Sony and LG in terms of price and features. It’s similar to the Sony in terms of looks as well, standing in the “hip to be square” camp, staring down the round-faced Moto and LG G Watch R.
As ever with smartwatches, the notifications you want are very handy, letting you keep up to date with your mobile life in a more discreet way.
The ZenWatch is also well designed, thanks to its premium-looking metal and leather combination. It’s even reminiscent of the Apple Watch shape-wise and can even stake a claim to being the first to offer the rounded square. Every time I wore it out, there were a lot of oohs and ahhs from people curious to know what kind of smartwatch it was simply based on how it looked.
Having more control over what Google Now notifies you about would be very useful, and the fitness features seem a tad half-baked to me. However, I can’t claim the classy look and feel exactly scream, “workout time!” So, perhaps that’s no surprise.
Additionally, though the overall design is definitely something I liked, the bezel is simply too excessive. This isin comparison again to the Apple Watch, which uses up the majority of the watch face’s real estate to provide a larger display.
If you want a nice-looking Android Wear smartwatch for around $199 (£199, about AU$252 ), the ZenWatch is another very solid option. There’s nothing here that could be described as a killer selling point, and it doesn’t quite stand up to the Sony Smartwatch 3 in terms of battery life or general ruggedness. Regardless, this timepiece is certainly in the top tier of rectangular Android Wear watches on the design front.
If you’re sold on Google’s wearable OS, our best advice would be to find a shop where you can compare this in terms of look and feel against the Moto, LG and Sony watches, then buy the one that suits. For my money, though, a Pebble Steel, or maybe waiting to see how the Apple Watch shapes up, seems like better options right now. You can even try waiting on Asus with the hopes it will have a better successor, since we’ll probably see ZenWatch 2 announced later this year.